Tea is a significant part of India’s rich cultural heritage. India is the second-largest tea producer in the world, after China. The country’s tea production comprises of some of the most popular tea varieties, such as Assam tea and Darjeeling tea. Tea is also the state drink of Assam, and in 2013, plans were made to officially recognise tea as India’s national drink. India is also the world’s largest consumer of tea, with almost 30% of global output being consumed within the country.
Ayurveda and Herbal Teas
India has a tradition of using herbal teas for medicinal purposes. Traditional Indian kitchens have long used various plants and spices such as holy basil, cardamom, pepper, liquorice, and mint to create herbal teas. These teas have been used for centuries for ailments ranging from serious illnesses to minor ailments. Teas made with these traditional herbs are mixed with chai to create a unique blend of taste and aroma.
History of Tea in India
Documentation of tea in India was lost in history for many years, and records re-emerged during the first century CE with stories of the Buddhist monks Bodhidharma and Gan Lu and their involvement with tea. Research shows that tea is indigenous to eastern and northern India, and was cultivated and consumed there for thousands of years. Commercial production of tea in India did not begin until the arrival of the British East India Company, at which point large tracts of land were converted for mass tea production.
Tea Cultivation in Ancient India
Tea cultivation in India has somewhat ambiguous origins. Though the extent of the popularity of tea in ancient India is unknown, it is known that the tea plant was a wild plant in India that was indeed brewed by local inhabitants of different regions. The Singpho tribe and the Khamti tribe, inhabitants of the regions where the Camellia sinensis plant grew native, have been consuming tea since the 12th century. It is also possible that tea may have been used under another name. Some researchers argue that tea was perhaps better known as “Soma” in ancient Indian history.
The next recorded reference to tea in India after the 12th century dates to 1598 when a Dutch traveler, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, noted in a book that the leaves of the Assam tea plant were used by Indians as a vegetable, eaten with garlic and oil, and as a drink. Another reference to tea in India was recorded in the same year by a different group of Dutch explorers.
Early British Surveys
In the early 1820s, the British East India Company began large-scale production of tea in Assam, India, using a tea variety traditionally brewed by the Singpho tribe. In 1826, the British East India Company took over the region from the Ahom kings through the Treaty of Yandabo. In 1837, the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam, and in 1840, the Assam Tea Company began the commercial production of tea in the region. The tea industry expanded rapidly in the 1850s, consuming vast tracts of land for tea plantations. By the start of the 20th century, Assam became the leading tea-producing region in the world.
The Tea Industry Today
Today, India is one of the largest tea producers globally, with over 70% of domestic tea being consumed within the country itself. The Indian tea industry owns many global tea brands and is one of the most technologically equipped tea industries globally. All aspects of the tea trade in India, including production, certification, and exportation, are controlled by the Tea Board of India, which was established in 1953. The Tea Board is responsible for regulating and promoting the tea industry in India and ensuring that the tea produced in the country meets international standards.
India’s tea industry faces several challenges, including low productivity, increasing labor costs, and competition from other tea-producing countries. However, the industry has been actively taking steps to address these challenges, such as promoting the use of technology in tea production and exploring new markets for exports.
Geographical Varieties of Tea in India
Tea is an integral part of Indian culture, with a rich history and diverse regional variations. The Tea Board under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India, lists eight geographical varieties of tea that are statutorily protected as Geographical Indicators, including Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Kangra, Munnar, Dooars-Terai, Masala Tea, and Sikkim Tea. Each variety is unique in its characteristics and has a distinct flavor and aroma that reflects the region where it is grown.
Darjeeling Tea: A Unique Brand in the World
Darjeeling tea is grown in the hilly region of Darjeeling in West Bengal. This variety is grown at elevations ranging from 600 to 2000 meters above sea level with over 300 cm rainfall on average. It was first planted in the 1800s and now has its unique brand in the world. To ensure that you are getting authentic Darjeeling tea, consumers must check for the Darjeeling logo and the Tea Board’s certification and license numbers. The Tea Board claims that Darjeeling tea is best drunk in porcelain teaware without any sugar or milk.
Tea Consumption in India: A Cultural Institution
India is one of the largest consumers of tea in the world, with a preference for milk tea. Tea is made both at home and outside. Outside the home, tea is most commonly and easily found at the tea stalls that dot just about every street in India. Post the success of coffee chains like Barista and Cafe Coffee Day, tea-themed cafe chains are taking root in metro cities in recent years. The phrase “Chai-Pani” literally meaning, tea and water, is used to offer welcome drinks and facilitate guests in houses of India.
Unlike the British cup of tea, tea in India is not served in a set where the leaves are steeped separately. Typically, tea in India is consumed with both milk and sugar, but the tea leaves are not prepared separately by being steeped. Instead, the tea leaves are boiled along with additions and then boiled again after the addition of milk and sugar. In many parts of the country, the most special tea is one where the tea leaves are boiled solely in milk.
There are many other popular variations depending on regional and cultural affiliations. In Southern India, Masala Chai is not popular; instead, tea brewed with milk and sugar is the prime beverage. Popular tea brews in Assam are Sah, Ronga Sah (red tea without milk), and Gakhir Sah (milk tea). In West Bengal and Bangladesh, it is called Cha. In Hindi speaking north India, popular tea brews are Masala Chai, Kadak Chai (a very strongly brewed tea), and Malai Mar Ke Chai (where a generous dollop of full-fat cream is spooned into the cup of tea).
Overall, tea is an important part of Indian culture and daily life, and the regional variations in tea brewing and consumption add to the richness of this cultural institution.